Our Man in Havana

It has been a while, since I put a pen to paper. We have more or less been out of WiFi area for a while.

We went to Havana for a few days. It has been 3 years since we were last there and we saw a lot of changes.

To start with, our transfer from the airport was in a modern taxi, the last time we chose a classic car, but I don’t remember seeing many modern taxis around, and this one was a “People Mover” type, to boot !

Our hotel, part of the Accor group ( Sofitel, Mercure etc,) was the first luxury hotel built-in Havana, in 1905. However nothing much has changed in it since the revolution, 60 years ago, very much faded glory, dim lights, dodgy plumbing and dubious, not inspiring food ( we only tried the breakfast). AND very dodgy internet, which was only available in the hotel lobby ! But never mind, we were not here for the internet, except we did need it urgently, but that is another story.

Our “Go To” Cafe for a decent coffee, in Plaza Veija, is still there and the coffee is still good, and our “Go To” Bar opposite the cafe is also still there and is still good, one in the shade for the morning and the other shady for the afternoon !

Our favourite restaurant a Paladores ( privately owned) in Calle Mercadores ,  ( Paladar Los Mercadores) is also still there. Three years ago, it was new, as the Castro regime had just given permission for individuals to open up their homes as restaurants or B nB’s. On our previous visit we were impressed by the food and the enterprising nature of the owner, he had converted the best rooms in his house into the dining area and had commissioned farmers and friends to grow produce for him, and he himself went fishing daily. However, on this occasion he was not around. The food was just as good, but the service was decidedly pushy. Our waiter tried very hard to sell us a $70 bottle of wine, but Himself is not someone to be pushed, but, it turned out that 90% of the wine on the menu was not to be had! Supply problems? Or was it the thought of selling us a $70 bottle of wine that was the problem, we will never know.

Our starters were not particularly memorable, not bad, just not outstanding. But the mains ! Wow!

Himself took a bouillabaisse type of fish stew, which was a speciality of Santiago de Cuba, and I chose the Catch of the Day, which was Tuna. The fish stew was excellent full of local fish and spicy. My Tuna was a huge slab of excellent Tuna, not as pink as I would have liked but nonetheless, wonderful. We had decided that we would swap halfway through and I’m glad we did, because it would have been a shame not to have been able to taste and enjoy the alternative fish dish.

Given the fact that Cubans on the whole do not eat fish, it is amazing that someone, somewhere remembers how to cook it! Since the Revolution and more recently since the withdrawal of Russian support from the island, when the average Cuban lost 1/3 of their body weight, fish became a major export and 90% of fish that is caught is exported.

The next evening we ventured out and would take “Pot  Luck”. we walked down the whole length of Emperado, this is Old Havana at it’s best, people hanging out of windows, kids playing in the streets , music everywhere and nowadays people proffering menus, for us to look at! “Come and try Mama’s cooking” they would say!

We wound up in an area where we had eaten on our previous visit, next door to the artists, colony,  in Callejon del Chorro another of Mama’s Home cooking areas. We were sure that Mama was in the back cooking as instantaneous it was not, but it was good and fresh and for people who have supply problems, they deal with the situation extremely well, and then Mama came to see if we had enjoyed her cooking, the answer was a resounding YES!

We were glad that we avoided the hotel restaurant, it was heavily advertised as having the best view in Havana. That aside it was a cavernous room, soulless and empty. They were serving either beef or ostrich ( neither of which are readily available in Cuba !

On our last morning we once again and walked into Old Havana where cars are mostly prohibited. We had seen a possibility for breakfast, and after a few missed junctions we finally found it and were not disappointed. Good coffee, good bread,  pastries and fruit. In fact the whole of this tiny street was filled with equally tiny cafes, and the man on the corner selling onions and  a smart boutique, selling Cuban Designer clothes!

For a quick overview of Havana, apart from taking one of the classic cars to spin you around, there is now a tour bus, of the “hop on hop off” variety. Having ” done ” the classic car thing on our last visit, we took the bus.. We stopped off at the cemetry or to be exact Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, which was founded in 1876 and is one of the most important historical cemeteries in the world. It covers 140 Acres with over 800,000 tombs, almost all in white marble. It really is a fascinating place, with many famous people being buried there as well as the ordinary person. We found the family tomb of Ibrahim Ferrer, he died in 2005, and was a member of the Buena Vista Social club, their latin music has been played around the world.

We noticed many changes in Havana, The music was still there, with whole families now participating, going from hotel to hotel,  now there were signs everywhere, ‘Rooms to rent”, and the small cafes, a lot of building works and renovations and much more to be done. The shops are still basically empty of goods and there were people standing in line to buy basic commodities such as soap and shampoo and washing powder. The architecture is beautiful, but seriously needs help and in time it will come. We left via the docks ( more on that later )which certainly had seen better days, but time will tell.



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